Monday, November 30, 2009

Church for the Unchurched

In my role as a church starting missionary for my denomination I visit many different churches. I visit churches both in my own state of Vermont, where I help start new churches, as well as churches across the nation where I encourage those churches to become partners in helping us start new churches in Vermont. Most of the new churches I help start are focused on reaching the unchurched. I understand that there are many different kinds of churches, and that some new churches will appeal primarily to those who are already Christians who are just looking for something fresh and exciting. I acknowledge that this is a valid reason for starting a new church; it is just not something I am particularly burdened to be involved in. I want to start churches that God can use to draw to Himself those who are not in already in church.

In my quest to accomplish this God-given mission I have met people who have said that we should not focus on inviting people to church, but that we should take the church to them. While I agree with the idea behind this statement, which is that we should be outwardly focused instead of inwardly focused, I think the New Testament is clear that when God's people went OUT to witness, the result was the formation of new churches that people could come IN to. Therefore we must have an outward focus that touches people OUTSIDE the church with the Gospel, but we also must have a church for them to attend once they begin their journey toward God. And to be honest, many existing churches are difficult places for the unchurched to come to in an effort to continue their journey toward the Lord.

For example, I recently visited a fine and successful church in the Bible belt. I was able to interact with a number of their members and clearly they love Jesus. Nearly 2000 people worship in this church on a typical weekend, so apparently many Christians find their services quite helpful. But as I sat in the large sanctuary and looked around, I could not help but notice that everyone around me was dressed up. I don't just mean they had a clean shirt on, I mean they were dressed up like they were going to a wedding. Though I did not meet every individual or investigate every corner of the building, I did not see anyone who appeared to be poor. Don't misunderstand me; there is nothing wrong with dressing up to go to church, but clearly, if I had been a poor person who had stumbling into the church trying to find faith, I would not have felt comfortable at that church. I would not have returned to continue my spiritual journey toward Christ. Even if I had not been poor, but just didn't realize that a person was supposed to dress up in order to go to church, I would have been embarrassed when I looked around and realized I was significantly under-dressed. Would I have been able to overcome my embarrassment and return the following week with nicer clothes on?

As the worship service progressed in that particular church, it was clear that everything was pre-programmed. Right down to when the various people would walk to the platform and oversee their portion of the service. Again, don't misinterpret what I am saying; I am not against a well planned service. Administration is my primary spiritual gift, I LIKE organization! But this service was so programmed, that I did wonder where the Spirit was. Not only did nothing spontaneous happen, but it did not seem like anyone around me was expecting anything spontaneous to happen. It seemed to me, as a visitor, they those around me were expecting "business as usual" and that is exactly what they got. Again, don't misunderstand me, I realize that spontaneous is not the same as Spirit filled, but even to my very organized way of looking at the world, that particular worship service seemed to lack the Spirit in its effort to follow the program so closely. If a non-Christian had been present, would they have "felt" anything? Would anything about the service have shouted "God is here!" to them?

As the worship service continued, the music that was used, the prayers that were prayed and even the sermon that was preached all seemed focused on helping people who had been in church a very long time have a better understanding of their faith. For example, a key point of the sermon was for the listeners to ask "How can God get the glory for whatever is going on in my life?" I happen to agree with that point. And the pastor did a great job explaining to people who already know God and already live a fairly godly life why that is an important question to ask. But had I been a non-believer, I would have wondered what the word "glory" means? That was never explained. And without understanding that key word, the whole statement just falls apart. Another point in the sermon was "True repentance is never too late, but late repentance is seldom true." Again, having been a Christian since I was a young child, I was able to realize that the pastor was implying that a person who thinks they are going to wait until the last five minutes of life and then turn to Christ is probably not going to make a real commitment to Jesus and will die in their sin. But that was never really explained. Had I been an older person who had not yet trusted Christ, what I probably would have "heard" the pastor say was "Don't bother turning to Christ now, it's too late." I am absolutely positive the pastor did not mean to imply that, but to the unchurched people I spend so much time with, that is exactly how they would have heard it. Would we really have expected such a person to return the next week to learn more? After all, they were just told it was too late anyway.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the entire service was the invitation to action that was given at the close of the service. The sermon was about how God can get glory no matter what happens in our lives, but as the sermon came to a close the final challenge was to "join the church." The pastor waxed eloquent about how some people were looking for a great church and he believed they had found it, so it was time to join up. I am still at a loss as to figure out how "joining the church" was an adequate conclusion to a challenge on how God can get glory by what is happening in my life. As a Christian, I went away somewhat baffled, had I been a non-Christian, I would have went away quite confused.

There are some reading this post who at this point are thinking that I am being judgmental about this pastor and this church. That is not the case at all. This was clearly a strong and healthy church that is doing a great job of reaching people who are already in church. Christians who are looking for a large, well programmed, well dressed congregation with a deep understanding of theological terms would be hard pressed to find a church better than the one I described above. I commend that church for their success in reaching such people. And most churches that I visit across the country are just like the church described above. I could have written this blog about almost any of the churches I have visited in the last two years and just happened to pick this one because it was one of the better examples of how to do church well in order to reach those who are already churched.

But here is my problem, most of my friends are not all that well dressed, nor do they have a deep understanding of theological terms, nor does a well programmed "event" speak to them of the power of Almighty God. Many of my friends are not even sure if they believe the whole "God" thing yet. They are curious and they do want to learn more about God on the spiritual journey they are taking. My own theological commitment to the sovereignty of God in all things tells me that they would not have this spiritual interest unless they were of the elect and were being drawn by the Spirit toward Christ. But if most churches are like the one I described above, and that just does not meet the spiritual needs of so many of my friends, then where will they go to church? Now you understand my deep commitment to starting churches that speak to the unchurched. It is a long and difficult process, but one to which I have committed my life.

11 comments:

  1. Now you see the problem I have with street kids. Where do I send them? Where in my area would they "fit in"? Not one single Church. That is why we meet in the Mall, Coffee shops, McDonald's and in alleys.

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  2. Dear Dr. T. Iread this blog and I thought it was great. When I went to church before F.F.C.. Everything looked programed when to stand ,sit,kneel. Since going to Faith Community Church it is totally different and greater than any other church i have ever been to. Please don't change what we do.

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  3. S. B. - South CarolinaNovember 30, 2009 at 6:17 PM

    You are a brave man!! I hope you don't get too much grief from people! Personally, I'm saddened by so many of our churches that fit the description you gave. My in-law's church is a mega church that fits the description of the one you wrote about and more. But I'm always saddened because I know that the poor people of the community will never approach that church and if they do, they will feel terribly out of place. I heard a sermon that focused on the passage in James 2 on favoritism. He said that we have made our churches for people like ourselves and this passage applies to us. The rich and successful feel welcome among us and the poor do not. It's not anything we have done intentionally, but it's there nonetheless. I'm bothered by expensive architecture and such and I always wonder what the budgeted percentage of funding to missions and outreach is in our churches.

    I know I sound negative. I spent a lot of years being "satisfied" in church, but God won't let me be satisfied anymore. He keeps convicting my heart about things!! God bless you, your family, and the work in Vermont!!

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  4. I too have seen this even here in Vermont. So inwardly focused that that there was no outreach and if someone did come in they would be confused by the messages.

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  5. Another fine post. If your feathers are ruffled reading this post, don't take it to Terry, take it to the Lord.

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  6. This is an excellent article. I think that your statements on going OUT to witness and having a place to come IN to "once they begin their journey toward God" were excellent and so true.

    It's a shame that so many churches are unfriendly towards unbelievers. It's given the church a reputation of being judgmental and unloving. This is one of the things that bothers me the most about the church in America today. Your statement that "many existing churches are difficult places for the unchurched to come to in an effort to continue their journey toward the Lord." is something that I have found to be true at most of the churches that I have been to as well. At times, even a Christian can feel unwelcome. It shouldn't be this way.

    Rather than following Paul's example in 1 Corinthians 9:21-23 we have "become" an exclusive religious society. We need to adapt to our surrounding culture. If one's town is inhabited primarily by poor people, then maybe wearing expensive suits isn't the best idea. If jeans are the norm, we should strongly consider wearing jeans. Only by being inclusive (while remaining under the law of Christ) can we shed the image of pious judgementality.

    The church should always welcome seekers and those who are curious on their spiritual journey. If we won't...who will? Finding such a balance in a church between feeding the flock and welcoming and accommodating seekers is crucial in maintaining a healthy congregation and growing the body of Christ.

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  7. The truth be told, most churches are plateaued or declining because they exist for the members (I didn't say saved on purpose) and not for the lost. Jesus came to seek and to save the "lost".

    Churches become self-sustaining bureaucracies over time. I believe that to be normal, not abnormal... that is why NEW churches need to be planted... constantly.

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  8. Jane Bryant McConnellDecember 4, 2009 at 5:15 PM

    Very good insight and thoughts. Thanks for sharing and giving us something to think, pray, and act on.

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  9. As a formerly well-churched--and currently extremely unchurched--person who grapples torturously and maddenly at what true faith really is, I think you're on the right track, but still somehow missing the point. Dress doesn't have anything to do with it. It doesn't matter if a congregation is dressed in Nordstromm's or Kmart faded blue jeans. What really matters is the heart and attitude of the attendees. Are the attendees there to seek the real God and his truth? Or are they there to dutifully put in their "time" for the week?

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  10. Looking for practical ways to put some of the principles in this blog post into action? Purchase my book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. The first part of the book explains why bivocational ministry is biblical, normal and missional. The second part of the book explains how to mobilize the laity to do high level ministry in a team setting with the pastor so that the church can be effective in reaching its community for Christ.
    The book is published by Crossbooks and you can buy the book directly from them at:

    http://www.crossbooks.com/BookStore/BookStoreBookDetails.aspx?bookid=58188

    The book is also available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Nobles.com and a many other online bookstores.
    If you live in Central Vermont, you can purchase a copy at the Faith Community Church in Barre, VT.

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